Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.
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Sunday, December 18
2 Maccabees 13: We come now to the year 163 and the second campaign of Lysias against the Jews. This time he will come in the company of the young king, Antiochus V Eupator, and the seriousness of this second effort is indicated by the procurement of mercenaries, chariots, and battle elephants (verses 1-2).
The king was encouraged in this campaign by the high priest Menelaus, whom Maccabaeus had deposed (verse 3), but Lysias made plain to the monarch that this ex-high priest was, above all men, the person most responsible for the recent troubles (verse 4). They dealt with him (verses 5-8).
Once again the Seleucid forces avoid the mountains by coming south along the coastal road, where the chariots and elephants could be deployed to best advantage on level ground. (Lysias had learned from the experience of Hannibal during the Second Punic War; not one of Hannibal's elephants had survived the trek through the Alps.)
Not expecting a counter-attack so soon, the troops of Lysias were spread thin along the road, as he took south of Jerusalem, as before, in order to lay siege to Beth-zur. It was a sabbatical year, when no crops were harvested; would there be enough food for those besieged?
Maccabaeus, instead of coming directly to Beth-zur to relieve the siege, hit the army of Lysias in the rear at Modin (verse 14), and he inflicted on the Seleucid force a series of victories (verses 15-20). This, however, was only one side of the story, of which we find the other side in the ampler, less optimistic account of 1 Maccabees 1:28-63. That other account of the events shows that Maccabaeus had his hands full, since his own army was at a serious disadvantage against chariots and elephants on level ground. In addition, as we see here, an informer betrayed secrets of the Jewish forces to the Seleucids (verse 21).
The Seleucid force was finally forced to withdraw when word reached them of rebellion back at Antioch. Lysias quickly arranged a peace with Maccabaeus (verse 23), the terms of which were confirmed in the letter we saw earlier in 11:22-26. Lysias then returned to Antioch to deal with the rebellion.
Monday, December 19
2 Maccabees 14: Just when things seemed to be looking up for the faithful Jews, there were new developments up at Antioch that boded worse. We have seen that Antiochus IV Epiphanes, when he died during his eastern campaign in 163, was succeeded by the young son who became Antiochus V Eupator. It is now time to look more closely at the circumstances of that succession.
In fact, the succession of Antiochus Eupator bypassed the eldest son of the deceased king, for the simple reason that that the Roman senate willed it so. Plainly put, Rome recognized the succession of Antiochus Eupator and saw to it that he took the throne. In doing so, they ignored the claims of the eldest son of Antiochus Epiphanes, Demetrios, who was living as a hostage in Rome at the time.
During this period of his confinement the Romans had observed in the prince a spirit of independence and initiative that did augur well for their ability to control him if he succeeded his father. The younger brother, Antiochus V, they believed would be easier to manage and would better look out for Roman interests in the Fertile Crescent, so they forced Demetrios to remain at Rome, where they could keep an eye on him.
Demetrios, for his part, understandably frustrated, considered his younger brother a usurper and resolved to replace him. Assisted by his friend, the historian Polybius, he escaped in 161 and journeyed to Tripoli, where he proclaimed himself the legitimate heir of Epiphanes (Polybius 31.2.11-15). When word of these developments reached Antioch, the army and the populace, having suffered nearly three years of the failures and ineptitude of Antiochus V and his minister Lysias, summoned the elder brother to come and take the throne as Demetrios I Soter (161-150). Antiochus and Lysias were promptly executed.
Whereas Maccabaeus and the Jews, by consistently frustrating the former regime on the battlefield, had secured a measure of freedom in their religious affairs, things quickly changed with the ascendancy of Demetrios. We may now pick up our narrative at the beginning of 2 Maccabees 14, which begins with the arrival of Demetrios at Tripoli in 161 (verse 1) and the execution of Antiochus V and Lysias.
Demetrios was approached in 161 by one of the former high priests deposed by Maccabaeus, a certain Alcimus, who with expensive gifts brought himself into favor with the new king (verses 3-4). Positioned thus to advise Demetrios, Alcimus poisoned his mind against Maccabaeus and the ˝new orderţ in force at Jerusalem (verses 5-10), in which counsel he was seconded by members of the court (verse 11).
The new king, on the basis of these reports, resolved to be rid of Maccabaeus, appointing Nicanor as the new governor of Judea and intending to restore Alcimus to the high priesthood (verses 12-13). In support of this resolve arose many pagans whom Maccabaeus had expelled from Jerusalem (verse 14). Nicanor and his swollen army marched south toward Judea, and the Jews prepared to meet him (verses 15-16).
Nicanor, resisted by only a small force under Simon, the brother of Maccabaeus, decided to attempt a resolution of the matter by diplomacy, if possible, and therewith dispatched a delegation to confer with Maccabaeus (verse 17-20). This effort was successful, and Nicanor conceived a heightened respect for Maccabaeus (verses 21-25). The two of them reached an amicable modus vivendi, in which Nicanor was received at Jerusalem as the royal governor.
This diplomatic arrangement was not, of course, to the liking of the treacherous Alcimus, who falsely reported to Demetrios that Nicanor and Maccabaeus were plotting against his own throne (verse 26). The king reacted at once. Nicanor, commanded to break off his diplomatic arrangement with Maccabaeus and forthwith deliver him as a prisoner, planned and looked for some way to comply (verses 27-29).
Maccabaeus, however, sensed the change of atmosphere in Jerusalem and prudently withdrew from notice (verse 30). Nicanor went in search of him, aware of the account he would have to render at Antioch if Maccabaeus escaped. He began by threatening the ministers of the temple if Maccabaeus were not handed over (verses 31-33).
There follows the dramatic account of Razis, a faithful Jew that rather took his own life than be captured by Nicanor's men (verses 37-46).
Tuesday, December 20
2 Maccabees 15: We come finally to the showdown between Nicanor and Maccabaeus, which our author understands as a conflict to decide who will really reign at Jerusalem, the true Lord or the gods of Greece (cf. 14:33).
Nicanor, learning that Maccabaeus and his band have gathered to the north, determined to attack on the Sabbath, confident that the Jews would not resist on the holy day of rest (verse 1). Such disrespect for the Sabbath scandalized even the very compromised Jews, who had thrown in their lot with Nicanor (verse 2). None of them, it would seem, were aware that Maccabaeus was quite prepared to fight on the Sabbath if necessary (cf. 1 Maccabees 2:41).
Nicanor, very confident of victory against the smaller forced of Maccabaeus, already prepared in his mind what he would accomplish when the battle was over (verse 6). Maccabaeus, just as confident but for very different reasons, gave spiritual encouragement to his men (verses 7-11), even sharing with them a vision he had received with respect to the future.
In this vision Maccabaeus beheld the late high priest, Onias III, interceding for Israel against the heathen. Joined to him in this prayer was the venerable prophet Jeremiah, a man renowned for the power of his intercessions (verses 12-14; cf. Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). Jeremiah gave Maccabaeus a sword of gold, in token of the coming victory (verses 15-16).
We observe here, it is worth, mentioning, that the saints in heaven are very much aware of the problems of the saints on earth and therefore intercede for them.
Prayer, indeed, settled the outcome of this battle (verses 17-27), and the victory was sealed with the praise of God (verses 28-29,34).
The hapless Nicanor, who had planned to erect a trophy in Jerusalem in celebration of his victory (verse 6), became the trophy of someone else's victory (verses 30-35).
Such considerations, concludes our author, provide ample reason for the annual celebration of Hanukah (36-39), with which impeccable logic the present writer hereby inscribes his enthusiastic accord.
To all our readers, then, a blessed and happy Hanukah, which this year begins on December 26!
Wednesday, December 21
The Barbarian Warrior: When the obscure kingdom of Lydia (in Asia Minor) arose to geopolitical notoriety in the seventh century before Christ, the man responsible for its rise was a ruthless, warring king known as Gugu (c. 680-c. 648).
"Gugu" was, at least, the name by which the Assyrians called him. Indeed, the earliest extant texts mentioning this Lydian king are found in the clay archives of the Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal (668-633), who was for a while Gugu's suzerain lord. Now it is surely significant of Gugu's political and military importance that a fragment of earthen tablet in distant Mesopotamia (the Rassam Cylinder, discovered in 1878 in the ruins of Kuyunjik) contains our first inscription of his name.
In Mesopotamian memory, in fact, the name and fame of Gugu lingered on. Ezekiel, writing his prophecies in that region during the next century (chapters 38-39), remembered the Lydian king as "Gug" or "Gog" (the two forms being identical in unmarked Hebrew).
Because of Lydia's inclusion in the greater world of the Greeks, it is no wonder that these latter also spoke of Gugu (whose name they Hellenized to "Gyges," our own "y" and the "u" being identical in Greek and the "es" a common masculine ending). In extant sources, the first Greek to mention Gugu was his contemporary, the poet Archilochus, who referred especially to the Lydian's great wealth. Aristotle later quotes a line of Archilochus, "Ou moi ta Gugeo tou polychrysou melei, oud' heile po me zelos--I am not bothered by the wealth of Gugu, nor did envy ever seize me" (Rhetoric 1418.42b).
Gugu's fame refused to fade. A full two centuries after the warrior's death, Herodotus (c. 482-c. 425) recorded memorable tales about him. In a rather involved story, for instance, he described how the wife of Gugu's predecessor persuaded him to kill her husband and seize the throne (Histories 1.8-12). Other versions of this narrative (for example, Plato, Republic 2.3 359C-360B) differ in the details, but most agree that Gugu murdered his predecessor and married the widow.
Gugu's violent seizure of the Lydian throne would have led to a civil war, says Herodotus (1.13), except that the Delphic oracle confirmed the usurper in his new position. In gratitude, Gugu devoted many gifts to the Delphic shrine (1.14).
No sooner had Gugu gained the throne than he began to invade and wage war on all his neighbors. That was all he knew how to do. In fact, says Herodotus, "he accomplished nothing else of note (ouden gar mega) in his reign of thirty-eight years" (1.15). Gugu was neither a hero nor a statesman. He was just a barbarian warrior.
Gugu's great military success was partly purchased by his alliance with the Assyrians, nor could it long survive that alliance. When, sometime about 648, Gugu treacherously sent forces to Egypt to help Pharaoh Psamtik I (664-610) in his rebellion against Ashurbanipal, the latter abandoned him to his local enemies in Asia Minor, and that was the end of Gugu.
As we have seen, nonetheless, something of Gugu declined to die. In popular imagination he remained the very type of the selfish, unprincipled barbarian warrior.
Thus, when the prophet Ezekiel, exiled in Mesopotamia a hundred years later, wanted to describe for his own contemporaries the imminent judgment of God in the tumultuous events of history, he could do no better than invoke the name of Gugu, or Gog, to describe the leader of a menacing, heartless barbarian army (38:15). This coming Gog holds sway, he wrote, in the land of Magog, a name meaning "(derived) from Gog" (Hebrew min-Gog). He is "the head (rosh) of Meshech and Tubal" (38:2 my translation), the two sons of Japheth and the fathers of most of the world's nations (Genesis 16:2; 1 Chronicles 1:5; cf. Ezekiel 27:13; 32:26; 39:1). This barbarian Gog represents, therefore, the relentless, hostile world arrayed against God's people.
Six hundred years after Ezekiel, St. John wrote another prophetic book, which he sent to--among other places--Sardis (Revelation 3:1), the ancient capital of Lydia, the very place where Gugu had seized the throne and married the queen. In this book John prophesied that hateful old Gog, along with Magog, was coming back after a thousand years, to visit devastation on the earth: "Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea (Revelation 20:7-8).
Whereas the pagan world recalled Gugu mainly as the type of the ruthless warrior, in the Bible he represents the Satanic forces of the world as the enemy of God and the abiding threat of persecution to God's people. In either case Gugu remains a very real problem in world history. Gugu seems ever to be with us, as St. John narrates today.
Thursday, December 22
A Tale of Two Cities: We now come to the final two chapters of John's book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.
In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
If we take the earth to represent man's empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man's experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man's experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man's existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.
Both heaven and earth are part of God's final gift to man, the New Jerusalem, the ˝dwelling of God with man.ţ This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral root, skn), was originally a tent made of ˝skins,ţ as the same etymological root, skn, is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of "skins" was the abode of God's presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, ˝I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.ţ
All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John's vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.
John's vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).
The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of the birth stones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles. We recall that the one hundred and forty-four thousand, the number of the righteous, partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plain geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6:20).
Friday, December 23
Come, Lord Jesus!: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John's vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river, twelve in number obviously, and just as Adam's curse drove him out of paradise, along with all his descendents, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of the nations.
The theme of the living waters is very much central to the Johannine corpus (cf. John 4:7-15; 7:38; 19:34; 1 John 5:6-8).
Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word ˝foreheadţ does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John's sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.
The urgency of John's message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord's coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John's readers to ˝get outţ the message. John's visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things ˝must shortly take placeţ (verse 6); it will all happen ˝soonţ (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.
This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus' swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for Him. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.
In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8-9).
Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude, the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 have something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this book has said.
In referring to those ˝outsideţ the City, John is relying on an ancient Eucharistic discipline of the Church, called ˝excommunication,ţ which literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1).
One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain ˝linesţ that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced ˝them and usţ mentality that we find abundantly in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve its own identity down through history.
Saturday, December 24
Hebrews 1:1-14: Today's Gospel from Matthew calls Jesus "Emmanuel," which means "God with us," and in the very last verse of that gospel Jesus promises to be with us all days, even to the end of the world. The mystery of the Incarnation implies that God is permanently with us.
The permanence of what God has wrought in Christ is a major thesis of this first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which stresses the theme in a series of contrasts.
First, the permanence, the ultimacy, the absolute finality of God's revelation in Jesus is contrasted with the previous and partial revelation of God in the ancient prophets. In times past, says the Sacred Text, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways, but in these last of days He has spoken to us by a Son.
Second, the permannence of Jesus is contrasted withose mutable, those come-and-go revelations of God in His angels. In verse 7 the angels are called "winds" and "flames of fire," but the next verse addresses the Son like this: "Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever."
Third, the permanence of Jesus is contrasted with the heavens themselves and the earth on which we stand: "They will perish . . . You will roll them up like a cloak, like a garment they will be changed." But speaking to Christ, the author constrasts such fugacity with the eternal stability of God's Son: "You remain . . . You are the same, and Your years will have no end." Later on, this same epistle will speak of "Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and forever."
This book, like all the New Testament, was composed during a period of great political stability, but in almost every other way that era was marked by instability and mediocrity. For instance, we may contrast the shallow theater of that age with what had been accomplished centuries before by Sophocles and his friends. We may observe the disparity of the philosophical climate of this period with the robust thought of preceding centuries in which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had addressed humanity.
The age in which the New Testament was composed was an age in search of a ground on which to set its feet, and age in quest of constancy and enduring substance. The philosophy of the elite at this time was Stoicism, a sophisticated pursuit of permanence within the structure of the soul itself. But the preachers of the Gospel insisted that the true source of permanence was not the human soul, but God, who made Himself available to man in Jesus Christ.
In our own age of instability and mediocrity this must also be the truth living in the consciousness of the disciples of Jesus. We possess in our hearts, and therefore we proclaim with our lips and in our lives, the true foundation and ground of our existence, that throne which endures forever and ever.
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